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You know that part in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” where the Grinch’s heart, which is originally two sizes too small, grows three sizes, and everything changes? That happened to our hearts this weekend.

Our hearts didn’t seem small to us before–they were your normal, average-sized vessels. But now that we’ve brought home four baby goats, our hearts feel much bigger than they were and that has changed our lives. My son Adrian quickly decided that he didn’t want to go to school anymore, and although I find it challenging to write with a baby goat asleep on my lap, I’d rather type slowly and inefficiently than forgo the experience. We are virtually incapacitated by our love for these little animals.

Adrian and Pandora 

That has me thinking. Isn’t it in everyone’s best interest to increase our capacity for love? Won’t the compassion my son gains from this experience enable him to engage more compassionately with all living things? Won’t his ability to intuit these babies’ unspoken needs make him more sensitive to the needs of others? Won’t his willingness to take responsibility for their physical well-being make him more willing to engage in the work that makes any relationship thrive?

Adrian with all four goats

My hunch is that the answer to all of these questions is, “Yes.” As Adrian’s mother and “childhood designer,” I sometimes imagine who I want Adrian to be when he grows up, and then reverse-engineer experiences that I think will lead to that result. Our little farm is one of those experiences.

 

When I envisioned our farm, I saw dairy goats and fiber animals. Dairy goats have to have kids regularly to produce milk, so I knew we’d have to have bucks as well as does. This meant that we’d need one pen for the bucks and another one for the does, allowing them to be together only for their annual “conjugal visits.” It also meant building a lot of fences.

Here, having ruminants such as sheep and goats, means you have to have a guardian animal. A neighbor lost 11 of her sheep to coyotes this winter, and she’s now paying someone to the shoot coyotes–which reduces Adrian to tears. We needed a different solution.

There are three kinds of animals that people use to guard their livestock: donkeys, llamas, or dogs.

The neighbor has two donkeys, which are obviously not doing the job for her and I hate the sound of their braying. Although llamas work for a few people we know, our place is too small for one. Beside, Adrian has had a dog-shaped hole in his heart ever since we had to find a new home for our last one, so deciding on a livestock guardian dog was fairly easy. But which kind? Akbash? Anatolian? Kangal? Cacasian Ovcharka? Great Pyrenees? Komondor? Kuvasz? Polish Tatra, Slovakian Cuvac? Tibetan Mastiff?

None of the above. I decided on a Maremma. I found a breeder in whom I have enormous trust, and put a deposit down on a pup long before we had livestock for her to guard. Why? Because I opted to leave her with her parents until she was five months old. This would give her an opportunity to be fully exposed to different types of livestock and to be with working adult dogs long enough to learn the basics.

Having settled on a livestock guardian, I turned my attention to the livestock, specifically to dairy goats. Nubian dairy goats are considered the “Jersey cow” of the goat world. They don’t make as much milk as other goats, but the butterfat content is higher, and that’s a good thing when you’re thinking about making cheese. It didn’t take long to realize, however, that standard Nubians are too big for us to handle on our own. The laborers here on 13 Moons farm are a 47-year-old woman and an eight year-old boy, and we needed animals that were small enough for us to handle on our own.

Lo and behold, there’s such a thing as a mini-Nubian–a cross between standard Nubian and Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats. Nigerian Dwarfs have an even higher butterfat content than standard Nubians, and crossing the two leads to a smaller goat that eats half as much as standard Nubians, produces two thirds the milk, is less of a challenge on fences, and is generally easier to handle. They’re also more hardy, have a greater resistance to disease, and have fewer birthing problems. I was sold.

I found a breeder in Oregon, and we are making the 8+ hour drive there next weekend to pick up our babies. They are:

Rhea, left, a second generation doe:

Rhea (left)

Pandora, a third generation doe:

Calypso, a 4th generation buck:

Pan, a fifth generation buck:

The unexpected benefit of farming is: love. It is amazing how much we’ve grown to love these little beings before even meeting them. We think of them while building fences. We think of them when we look out at their empty pens. We think of them at night before we go to sleep. Adrian swoons when he sees their pictures, and already our hearts have increased their capacity for love.

My general goal when acquiring farm animals is for them to benefit us in at least two ways without our having to eat them. The laying hens provide us with eggs, but we also use them to eat weeds and till up the soil before we plant the garden. They eat scraps we would have otherwise thrown away.

The goats will provide us with milk, but they will also eat brush and help us “park out” our land.

That leaves fiber animals and bees, neither of which we have yet acquired. After conducting a lot of research on fiber goats (Pygoras and Angoras), I am back to thinking about Cormo sheep. They will provide us with wool and act as “muses” or mascots for the writers in the Writer’s Refuge. (How could they not with names like “Walden” and “Thoreau?”)

To expose ourselves to the annual Big Event of raising sheep, we went to Chris Lubinski’s to help out on shearing spa day.

Eifion started out by giving each sheep a pedicure.

He gave each one an oral dose of medicine, and then moved on to the cut-and-style.

  

 

My (self-appointed) job was to take the fleeces from Eifion to Chris and Molly, who were skirting the fleeces. In this picture, Chris and Molly were joined by their husbands, Dave and Jerry.

Skirting the fleeces

It was a cold day, but the freshly shorn fleeces were still body-temp warm on the inside. As I carried them all bunched against my chest, I began to smell more and more like the fleeces–a mixture of damp wool, lanolin, hay, and manure. Afterward, I carried the smell with me to the farm supply store and realized I kind of liked it.

Eifion is from Wales. There was a big rugby game going on that day, and it was killing him to miss it. He kept checking his cell phone to see if his brother, who was watching the game back in the U.K., had sent him a text message with the score. Here’s Dave checking for text messages.

Our chickens are egg layers, and we can’t imagine butchering them. But, curious to determine whether we had the stomach to raise animals for meat, we offered to help when our friend Molly told us that she had to butcher some of her chickens.

Warning: If you are a vegetarian, you may not want to continue past this point.

Catching the chickens in question was a responsibility that fell to Adrian and Molly’s son Gabe. Once caught, the chickens were handed over to Molly’s father, Hal, who quickly and unceremoniously dispatched them. I think this was the hardest part for Adrian–not the killing, but the lack of some kind of ritual of gratitude.

Next came the plucking. For the feathers to come out easily, the carcasses needed to be scalded. Hal and I donned oven mitts and carried a canning kettle full of near-boiling water from his place next door over to Molly’s. Then we began dipping the carcasses.

Scalding the chickens

After that, plucking the chickens was easy.

Plucking

The denuded chickens were plopped into buckets of water to cool.

Cooling

Once all the chickens were plucked, we carried them over to Hal’s, because his kitchen was more conducive to the next phase of the project: gutting.

Molly with carcasses

Hal demonstrated the gutting process, and Molly and I took turns eviscerating the chickens. Here I am reaching waaaaaay up into the chicken’s body cavity trying to remove the lungs:

Petra gutting a chicken

Overall, I found that I didn’t have any problem plucking and gutting, but I just couldn’t bring myself to cut off their heads and feet. 

Chicken feet

It took about five months for our chicks to grow into adults and begin laying eggs. By that time, I’d spent so much on fences, nest boxes, feed, and shelter, that I figured I’d have to charge about $50 per dozen to begin recouping my investment.

Around December 10, our chickens laid their first egg. (Don’t they look proud?)

Because they matured during the darkest time of the year, I decided to play “god” and artificially lengthen their days to make them produce more. I put a timer on the light in the chicken shed and gradually worked them up to 14 hours of “daylight,” which increased their egg production. Their free ride was over. It was time to earn their keep.

Having said that, I wonder if gathering eggs will ever get old. It still seems like Christmas every time I check the nest boxes and find little treasures in them.

After we’d gotten the chickens off to a good start, I decided we needed some ducks. So my friend Molly and I went in on a duck order from McMurray Hatchery, and Adrian and I got six Cayuga females. (Or so we thought.) Why Cayugas? Because: 

  1. They’re listed with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as a threatened species
  2. They would look good with the chickens. Their shimmery beetle-green plumage would perfectly complement the beetle green bits on the Golden Laced Wyandottes, and
  3. When we imagined the sounds of our future farm, we distinctly heard quacking.

It didn’t take us long to realize that ducks are nothing like chickens. Their relationship to water is completely different, and the wood shavings in their brooder (a galvanized metal livestock tank) quickly turned into a stinky soupy mess that required mucking out constantly. We had to put blocks of wood under one side of the brooder to keep the muck down on one end.

The ducks weren’t friendly like our chicks. Whenever we came to take care of them, they seemed fearful. And they weren’t as robust. We still have our original 13 chickens, but the day after this picture was taken, one of the ducklings died.

Eventually, when they outgrew the brooder, we put them in one of our two chicken yards and kept the chickens in the other one. This is where we noticed the second difference between ducks and chickens. Chickens have a roosting instinct. Ducks don’t. Chickens sleep all night and are awake all day. Ducks take little catnaps throughout the day and night.

The galvanized stock tank that had been the ducks’ brooder became their pond. By this time, the ducks were in full feather and nearly full grown. One morning, as Adrian headed toward the neighbor’s car to carpool to school, he noticed that one of the ducks was in the stock tank and couldn’t get out. I was up against two deadlines and scurried about the house for 45 minutes in preparation, all the while casting an occasional glance out at the duck. She seemed fine. Ducks are water birds. What could go wrong?

Well, by the time I got out there to rescue her, her head was under water. I rushed her in the house, wrapped her in a towel to warm her, and attempted to get her to breathe again by repeatedly pressing down on her chest, and then letting up again. Nothing worked. The duck had drowned.

Did I mention that we still have the same 13 chickens that we started with?

Molly had purchased unsexed Cayugas from the local farm and garden store earlier in the year and wound up with only one female. We decided to adopt one of her many males. Because he was older than our ducks, his plumage had already developed that lovely iridescent green shimmer, and he was gorgeous. I wanted to name him “Drake-ula,” but Adrian vetoed that idea.

We learned that male ducks don’t quack.

The chickens had a well-established pecking order, and I knew integrating the ducks and chickens would upset that (though integrating them was my ultimate goal). So, I planned to keep them separate until the ducks stood a fighting chance. That meant that at night, the chickens went inside the chicken shed, and the ducks stayed in the chicken yard.

I had created a Fort Knox of a chicken yard: 6-foot fences, an apron around the edges (chicken wire held to the ground with landscape staples to prevent coyotes from digging under the fence), cement blocks under the gate for the same reason, and a net over the top to prevent raptors from attacking the chickens. What could go wrong?

One night, I woke to the sound of the ducks making a ruckus. I got up to look out the window and saw a raccoon in the chicken yard. I dashed outside, only to find that it had already killed one of them. I chased the raccoon off, but he didn’t go far. He sat on a branch in the cedar tree and watched me. I threw rocks at him and wished, for the first time in my life, that I had a gun.

I had to go out three times that night. The last time, the raccoon was on top of a duck, tearing at its neck. I chased him away, and because the netting over the top of the yard prevented his immediate escape, I managed to give him a few good whacks with a stick before he found an opening. The duck he had just attacked was still alive, but quite bloody. I took it to the vet the next day, who prescribed a course of antibiotics to prevent infection, making it a $65 dollar duck.

I was done with ducks after that. Adrian and I decided to keep Molly’s drake and the duck that had been attacked by the raccoon, and gave the remaining two ducks to Molly. That way we’d have a male and a female, and the possibility of ducklings.

Except it didn’t turn out that way. One day, I realized that I’d never heard the duck that survived the raccoon attack quack. I checked, and sure enough, the curled tail feathers it was beginning to develop indicated that we had not one, but two drakes. Molly graciously allowed us to return her drake and swap it for one of the females we had given her. Of the two drakes, we decided to keep the one who’d been attacked by the raccoon, having grown a bit attached to it while administering antibiotics and nursing him back to health.

Here’s a fuzzy picture of our first duck egg, with the duck and drake (head up) in the background. Was it worth all the trouble? Let’s just say that these are our last ducks.

 

My plan to have a perfectly homogenous little flock of Golden Laced Wyandottes was foiled the day the chicks arrived. My friend Stephanie ordered a smattering of all kinds of different birds, which arrived in the same box as ours, and she noticed that Adrian fell in love with one of her yellow Buff Orpington chicks. She asked if she could give it to Adrian.

“Oh ALL RIGHT,” I said in defeat.

 Now, we had a perfectly homogenous little flock of Golden Laced Wyandottes AND “Buttercup.”  

Buttercup as a chick Huckleberrying with Buttercup

Because all the other chicks looked exactly alike, and perhaps because blondes do have more fun, Buttercup got a lot of attention from Adrian. When she got older, he tucked her under his arm and went for walks in the forest with her, occasionally stopping to feed her huckleberries.

I don’t share Adrian’s passion for Buttercup because she once pecked me right in the eyeball. She’s been on my personal “butcher” list ever since.

We spent a long time with the Murray McMurray catalog, and finally decided on 12 Golden Laced Wyandottes, which are considered a “rare and unusual” breed. I thought they were the prettiest chickens in the catalog. Having had a higgeldy piggeldy flock of mismatched hens, I was ready for a beautiful flock that I’d enjoy looking at out the kitchen window.

Like anything else you order from a catalog, baby chicks come in the mail. You have to order a minimum of 25 of them (they keep each other warm in the box), so friends and neighbors went in on the order.

Early one morning in late June of 2007, someone from the post office called to say the chicks had arrived.  So we pulled on clothes, ran to the car, and drove to Langley to get them.

Adrian at the post office getting our baby chicks

That is the day we became farmers.